Craigvinean :: Chapter 4 - The Roman Presence

Chapter 4 - The Roman Presence

Inhospitable Scotland lay at the furthest limits of the Roman Empire. Lacking riches and resources and with scarce agricultural land it was of little real interest to the Romans. Their presence in Scotland was part of a military campaign and cannot be compared with their colonisation of the south of England. Dere Street and its associated camps and fortifications must therefore be placed firmly in a military context and not as permanent features associated with civil settlement and trade.

Forts and Camps

The best preserved group of Roman temporary camps in Scotland lies just to the north of the Towford Centre at Pennymuir. Five kilometres to the south-east are the striking remains of Chew Green camp, with its associated signal-station on Brownhart Law. Ten kilometres to the north-west is Cappuck fortlet, while Woden Law, across the valley from the Centre, has Roman seige-works surrounding the native hill-top fort. Linking all of these and running, fortuitously, beside the boundaries of the Centre is a Roman road, known since Saxon times as Dere Street.

This abundance of Roman remains might suggest a massive Roman presence in the Southern Uplands whereas in fact all of the relics are connected with the construction and maintenance of the Roman road, an artery of considerable importance. All of the Roman works in the Towford area have military connections and nowhere is there evidence of civilian settlement and colonisation such as one finds in the more favoured areas south of the Border. There is no doubt that the bleak and barren uplands would have little appeal to the Roman settler, accustomed to a high standard of living in a rich, agricultural setting. It is almost certain that the native population was already pressing the limits of local food supply and that the maintenance of garrisons at any of the Roman camps would necessitate imported food and other essential supplies.

A rough setting for the Roman presence in this area is from about 79 A.D. to about 400 A.D. Details of dates, campaigns, native tribes, etc., have deliberately been omitted from this very general description but may be studied elsewhere.

Dere Street

Dere Street was one of the two main north/south route-ways into Central Scotland, the other ascending Annandale to the west. Dere Street was a military road in every sense of the word, it physically served as a through route from Corbridge to the Roman stations on the Firth of Forth, however Gilbert has described it as “not just a road but an artery of empire, a means of communication, a source of supply, a trade route, a cultural highway and a boundary line”. Bearing in mind that the Romans could use the sea to bypass the obstacle of the Southern Uplands, as they did in the campaign of Severus, and that trade must have been very restricted, Dere Street’s most important function was probably that of a communications link between local garrisons.

It should be borne in mind that a network of minor Roman roads must have existed in the Borders, linking scattered forts such as those near Selkirk and Peebles with headquarters at Trimontium and with signal stations on several prominent hilltops such as Ruberslaw and the Eildons. Dere Street was the A-class road in this network of minor routes, but never approached the “motorway” standards of such busy highways as Watling Street, running between London and Chester. That part of Dere Street which ascends Woden Law must have been a very severe test for any kind of wheeled transport carrying heavy loads.

Dere Street is most clearly defined between Pennymuir and Whitton Edge, where it is bounded by double stone walls. These date from a later period when Dere Street came into use as a drove road.

The principal centre of Roman military power in the Scottish lowlands was the great fort of Trimontium near Newstead, Melrose. This fort takes its name from the nearby triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, on one of which was situated the largest native hill-fort in Scotland. A detailed description of Trimontium is available elsewhere and the fort lies too far away from the Towford area to justify inclusion in this guide. The Eildon Hills are however clearly visible from Woden Law and the line of the Roman road may be followed from the map.

Pennymuir temporary marching camps (755140) to the north of the Towford Centre are still clearly defined by large earthen banks, the remains of former defences. There have been at least four camps on this site, the largest of which measures approximately 500 x 300 metres (15 hectares) with enough space to accommodate two legions, each of 5,000 men. There were no permanent buildings or gates, the troops using leather tents laid out in lines. Such camps were found throughout the Roman Empire, all organised on much the same careful plan. A number of tutuli or defensible entrances can easily be traced on the ground by walking along the perimeter earthworks.

The remarkably well-defined encampment at Chew Green (788085) had more varied functions than the camp at Pennymuir, in that it appears to have contained a marching camp, a labour camp and at one stage a permanent fortlet. It most probably also provided a base for the unit manning the nearby signal station on Brownhart Law.

Conditions in these high camps must have been very primitive and one is reminded of W. H. Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues”, which begins :

“Over the heather the wet wind blows I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose”

The signal station on Brownhart Law (790096) has a curiously restricted out-look but was probably the link with the signal post on Ruberslaw as well as the Eildon Hills. Ruberslaw in turn could have been a link with Craik Cross and the Roman road to the west. We still do not know what kind of signalling system the Romans used but in cloudy, upland conditions there is little doubt that messengers would still be very important.

The small fortlet at Cappuck (213695) is no longer visible on the ground but has been extensively excavated. It overlooked the river crossing of the Oxnam and has been described as a bridgehead fort. The outer works were approximately 60 metres square, enclosing a stone-built fort, granary and other buildings.

The Roman seige-works investing the native hill-fort on Woden Law (768125) are of the greatest interest as the camp appears to have been used as a training ground for local troops. One can imagine conscripts being marched and manoeuvres on the summit of Woden Law. The difficulties of moving seige-engines over such terrain must have been formidable.

All the Roman works mentioned above are described in detail in the volumes listed at the end of this chapter and space does not permit more than a passing mention of each. It should perhaps be noted that amateur excavation is strictly prohibited at all of the camp-sites mentioned but it is still possible to obtain permission to excavate on the line of the Roman road itself.

Sources of Information

  1. An Inventory of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Roxburghshire; The Royal Commission on the Ancient Monuments of Scotland, H.M.S.O., 1956. (The Inventory provides a great amount of detailed factual information on many aspects of the archaeology and history of the area though its primary purpose is to describe the physical remains).
  2. The Roman Army; Connolly, P. , 1975. (Easily read and beautifully illustrated).
  3. The Romans ; Forman, J., 1975. (As above).